Mark Lancaster is Shadow Minister for International Development and, as the main Conservative team on Project Umubano base themselves in Rwanda, has travelled north to neighbouring war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. There he is seeing for himself the impact that years of conflict have had on the World Heritage site of Virunga National Park, which straddles Northern Rwanda, Uganda and Eastern DRC and is home to some of the worlds’ last remaining mountain gorillas.
In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, 15 years of violent conflict in Eastern Congo has produced one of the worst humanitarian tragedies in recent history. Fighting between a multitude of rebel militias and government troops, the breakdown of the rule of law and the gradual destruction of all social infrastructure are believed to have contributed to an estimated 5 million civilian deaths. Whilst many may argue that today the ‘war’ is over, as the armed militias continue to rampage across vast tracks of the Eastern Congo, what is clear is that the humanitarian crisis certainly is not.
Disputes over natural resources have always been an underlying cause of armed conflict. Natural forests in particular harbour some of the more established armed groups in the region such as the Hutu FDLR and until recently at least, the Tutsi CNDP as well. All wars need to be paid for and Illegal trafficking of forest resources, in particular charcoal, provides these groups with one of their primary sources of income. In 2008 alone, the annual turnover of illegal charcoal was estimated at over US$30m, much of which is channelled through the armed groups which control the trade, 92% of the charcoal used in Goma and Northern Rwanda comes from Virunga national park.
Effective conservation and war may seem incompatible, but thanks to the para-military ICCN Rangers (Insitut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) operating in park under the command of their charismatic Belgian leader Emmanuel De Merode, the Rangers have been defending the Mountain Gorillas natural habitat against war lords and poachers alike, a task they have been undertaking since the parks creation back in the 1920’s.
As well as being the park's law enforcement officers, the Rangers carry out fighting patrols to seek out and destroy FDLR rebel controlled charcoal kilns but it is a strategy which in the past has lead to reprisals to not only the Rangers, (their camp at Rutshuru 100km North of Goma was attacked as recently as May), but also back in 2007 the mountain gorillas themselves when several were killed in the park by rebels out for revenge. Today tactics have changed and whilst operations to destroy kilns continue, a more constructive approach taken.
In a proactive approach aimed at reducing the demand for charcoal, locals are offered a free ‘kit’ involving a press, petrol hammer mill, mould, greenhouse and basins to allow them to make bio-fuel briquettes as an alternative ecologically sustainable source of energy. Working in teams of six, the briquettes can be made from almost any plant matter readily found in the forest together with sawdust and recycled paper and on condition that they produce at least four bags a week, Rangers both collect and buy the bags for $7 each direct from the producer and sell them in the local markets for $12 compared to $30 to an equivalent sack of charcoal. The small profit that the Rangers make is ploughed straight back into funding their work conserving the forest as well as development projects such as building local schools.
In just a few months already 1200 jobs have been created and almost all of the 4200 sacks of briquettes produced each month have been sold. The long term challenge is to change peoples’ consumption habits, away from charcoal to biomass briquettes.
Whilst the rebels might not like it as their income is slowly drained away, stability is returning to the region and the project is a fine example of not only protecting Virunga’s forests, but reducing poverty through the creation of jobs and averting a local energy crisis.
More information on the project and the role of the ICCN can be found at www.gorilla.cd